27 Jun 2008

Deep drilling into the past reveals micro-biology survival

USA drilling site

USA drilling site

About thirty-five million years ago one huge asteroid ploughed into the eastern seaboard of the United States with such force it made a crater 60 miles wide.

Only a few years ago an international team of scientists started drilling more than a mile down into the Chesapeake Bay Impact Structure (CBIS) to see exactly what it did to our planet. It was the first time that a scientific effort to study the effects of an asteroid or comet impact had included geology, hydrology and biology. The results are being published today (27 June 2008) by Science magazine in the US and the research shows a resilience of micro-organic life that can make a comeback even under great devastation.

The project team includes Professor of geomicrobiology Charles Cockell of The Open University Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (CEPSAR) who contributed to the Science article. He says: “We know that asteroid and comet impacts can devastate life on the surface of the Earth, but we know nothing about how they affect life in the deep subsurface, where most of the Earth’s biomass and major geochemical cycles are to be found. The Open University’s input was to investigate the microbiology.”

By drilling down over a mile underground from near the centre of CBIS in a soybean farmer’s field in Virginia, the OU team, including Professor Cockell and PhD student Aaron Gronstal with their collaborator Mary Voytek at the US Geological Survey were able to better understand the violence of such an impact. It was heated to 300 degrees Celsius and the crater was filled in with water from nearly two-mile-high tsunamis and falling rocks within a quarter of an hour.
35 million years later what they found was rock that has been re-colonised by microbes, especially at the bottom of the crater.

This is the first of the science being released from the four year-long CBIS drilling project and it has applications to more than just Earth – there are similarities with other planets such as Mars that have had asteroid and comets impacts and possibly life that could also have survived.

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